With the defense news media largely focused on this week’s Air Force Association Convention in Washington, D.C., it is not surprising that much of the reporting centered on big decisions and major platforms. There was the Air Force Chief of Staff, General Mark Welsh’s speech warning that entire fleets of aircraft might have to be retired if sequestration continues. On the positive side, there was upbeat news about progress on the F-35 program as well as a major reduction in the estimated 50-year life-cycle cost for the three-service fleet of Joint Strike Fighters.
It is easy in this news environment to lose sight of how well some small vehicles and, in dollar terms, relatively small programs are doing. One example of this is Insitu’s Scan Eagle. It was reported this past week that the company had been awarded a new $300 million contract by Special Operations Command. Scan Eagle has been operating on behalf of SOCOM for several years and this new contract is an acknowledgment of how valuable the system has proven itself to be.
The Scan Eagle is a small (10-foot wingspan) low-cost, long-endurance autonomous unmanned aerial system (UAS). Employing extreme high resolution sensors in a specially built ultra-stable turret, the UAS can provide real-time, continuous feed video as well as laser designation. Its small, very efficient and quiet engine allows Scan Eagle to remain airborne for as long as 24 hours and to “hover” silently within close range of potential targets. In addition, the Scan Eagle employs a unique catapult launcher and patented runway-independent retrieval system, called SkyHook, that catches the aircraft’s small wingtip mounted hook with a rope hanging from a 50-foot-high boom. The launch and recovery system is simple, transportable and relatively cheap.
Scan Eagle initially found a home with the U.S. Marine Corps in Iraq. Employing a first of its kind, video by the hour service, Insitu supported Marine Corps operations across that service’s area of operations. The quality of information provided by the Scan Eagle was so good that Marine units did not want to leave their bases without assurance that one of these vehicles would be overhead. The Navy has demonstrated that the same launch and recovery system can be deployed on surface ships, providing the fleet with an instantaneous ISR capability.
Scan Eagle’s bigger brother, the RQ-21 Integrator, won the contract to be the Navy’s small tactical unmanned air system (STUAS). It will be able to carry a variety of payloads, but primarily day/night video cameras, laser designators and communications relays. With more power and payload than its little brother, the Integrator will complement the Scan Eagle in providing the Navy, Marine Corps and, possibly, other services, with on demand overhead ISR support.
With all the focus on big issues and major programs, it is important to remember that some of the most innovative solutions industry is providing to the military come in small, relatively cheap packages.
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